Unfortunately, this hearing is being portrayed by both sides of the capital punishment debate as being primarily about the death penalty, though at least prosecutors are keeping their eye on the ball. Reported the Statesman::
"This isn't about whether you are for or against the death penalty. It's really about process," said Seana Willing, executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by Texas judges.This case is about Judge Keller putting her own preferences before the court's process, ignoring the duty judge appointed to make the decision on Michael Richard's appeal and substituting her own judgment instead. Yes, Keller is ardently pro-death penalty, but that was merely her motive for the violation, not the pivotal issue in the debate.
The Keller case is a brazen example of judicial activism. Judge Keller is a critic of last-minute death penalty appeals and notoriously anti-defendant in her rulings in such cases. But in this instance she allowed those opinions to motivate a judgment call - rejecting Michael Richard's execution-day appeal - that was simply not her decision to make. Her colleague on the court, fellow Republican Judge Cheryl Johnson, will testify at the hearing that she was the scheduled duty judge under court rules existing at the time and would have ruled differently if the clerk had asked her whether to allow the appeal.
Here's the formal charging document against Judge Keller; read it for more background. At the end of the day, IMO it's clear Keller did indeed commit the specific acts of which she's been accused by the Commission on Judicial Conduct - the question will be whether such acts exhibit "incompetence," or "cast public discredit" on the judiciary.
Despite the hype around this case among pro- and anti-death penalty factions, in reality that's not what this suit is fundamentally about. Michael Richard already has been held accountable for his crimes. Now we will learn whether the Presiding Judge on Texas' highest criminal court can also be held accountable, or whether it's okay for her to flout the rules and practices of the court in cases where the defendant is accused of a particularly detestable offense.
If this were happening in Austin I'd head over this morning to cover today's fact finding hearing, but since it's in SA I'll have to rely on the MSM like everybody else.
RELATED: See additional "preview" stories from Texas Monthly, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, and more from the Austin Statesman, where Chuck Lindell will be liveblogging the trial.
UPDATE (8/18): Here's a roundup of Chuck Lindell's excellent blog coverage from the first day: